Back in person this year, the 2021 Fleet Forward Conference was buzzing with nearly 400 attendees eager to hear the latest in tech developments for fleets, get insight on charting electrification strategies, meet with peers and industry leaders, and of course, ride and drive hot new vehicles from OEMs, upfitters, and suppliers. (If you want to watch or rewatch any sessions, each presenation is now available online.)
The historic Hayes Mansion in San Jose served up a gorgeous backdrop for the event, where networking took place underneath the California sun and stars. Conversations and questions ranged from how to harness telematics data, the EV price barrier, long-term cost savings and available incentives, battery range, weather and grid availability concerns related to going electric, how to best plan charging infrastructure, training drivers on the unique features and tech of an EV, and the rise of self-driving cars. And, there was much speculation on what exactly the future of fleet mobility looks like.
The Path to Electrification: Ford Pro’s Take
The first full day of the conference opened with a keynote from Ford Pro’s Tim Baughman – only after Fleet Group Editor Chris Brown reminded the caffeinated crowd that “fleet management is sexy.”
Baughman set the stage for what was to come, offering an inside look at Ford’s offerings and presenting an overview of the complexities and considerations fleets must keep in mind when charting their path to electrification. “Right now we’re at a major inflection point,” he said. “Electrification will make a profound difference in the profitability of companies, and the ones at the forefront will have an advantage over their competition.”
Ford expects 40% of its global volume to be fully electric by 2030, which represents 600,000 electric trucks and vans in its depots. With much work to do and much left to learn, Baughman spoke to the importance of driver and employee retention, planning early, and understanding charging, to avoid unscheduled downtime and the cost of mismanagement. “The time to plan for electrification is now,” he exclaimed.
Baughman also talked about pricing strategies and the MSRPs of EVs, noting some “significant price gouging” among a few U.S. dealers – a move frowned upon by the country’s leadership. “The semiconductor and overall industry shortage is making the situation worse on top of hot vehicles,” he said. He also referenced charging and depot strategies, utility usage, and how Ford is using bidirectional power to give energy back to the grid.
Data, Data, Data
The next plenary session, “EV Efficiency: Big Data vs. Commonly Held Assumptions” brought in a panel that discussed targets, goals, and of course, data considerations for fleets’ sustainability journey. Don Belknap of Wheels reminded that it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach and must be prescriptive.
Belknap says that viewing electric vehicle data sets bring unique difference compared to ICE vehicles. He urges fleet managers to monitor more than miles traveled, and look at how many trips a vehicle took, where it was garaged at night, and what its charging set up looks like. A key consideration must be knowing where your drivers are at in regard to EV adoption so they can be trained in proper use and behavior.
Moderator Roger Lanctot of Strategy Analytics recommends planning upfront, asking the right questions, and understanding the full scope of the environment when the threshold for failure is low.
Arun Rajagopalan, Motorq, says that data can help solve pain points, noting that we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of what is possible. “EVs are very small in fleets right now, but you’re going to see the hockey stick adoption,” he said.
A common talking point among fleets is how batteries perform in various weather conditions. Rajagopalan says Motorq’s data shows that battery efficiency can decrease by about a third in extreme cold, and at higher speeds, the drop in efficiency is less dramatic but worth noting. He urges fleets to train their drivers on these qualities so that they understand how to optimize using the vehicle.
Some good news is that battery life is favorable (and degradation is low) as it is used more. “This gives us comfort,” Rajagopalan says. “In three years, you won’t have a lemon. And it’s only going to get better over time.”
However, the panel noted that EVs do not perform as well over long road trips; for those, they recommend renting or using an ICE vehicle during this transition to an electrified future.
After an exhilarating lunch and Innovation in Motion display from vendors offering tech talks and ride and drives, the crowd convened again for a talk on the root causes of the supply chain disruption and new solutions.
Jim Press, Work Truck Solutions, moderated the panel and reminded us that COVID stopped everything, creating many issues for many industries and demand that skyrocketed. This taught us lessons, though at the expense of about 8 million in lost units and $250 million.
Both Kathryn Schifferle of Work Truck Solutions and Kirk Mann of Mitsubishi HC Capital America agreed that the silver lining was that the pandemic shone a light on how essential fleets are, especially as last-mile deliveries rose 28% in the last year. Press said it presented an opportunity to rethink our entire supply chain, while Schifferle added that “In a crisis, change can happen.”
Mann says to look at data and the Internet of Things to better understand demand by segment and geography, to plan accordingly and become more efficient as an industry. “The key to all of this is cooperatively building it out,” he said. “Make use cases and understand the context of situations to predict things ahead of time.”
And with more and more startups and experts emerging in this new technological landscape, the outlook is brighter than ever.
MDs, OEMs, Large Fleets & Autonomous Trucking
When the larger group broke out into concurrent sessions, attendees could choose where to focus the rest of their time. In one room, medium-duty EV deployments were highlighted, while OEM data was discussed downstairs.
In the latter, Kathleen Thomson from ARI reminded attendees that different platforms are not an apples-to-apples comparison, and to keep the differences in mind when creating driver scorecards. With safety in mind, OEM data can also harness and integrate with ADAS for greater insight and context into distracted driving and other situations drivers can find themselves in.
As fleets integrate more telematics data into external systems and build a more robust picture of what a fleet is doing as a whole, the number of drivers can increase while the number of vehicles can decrease. This highlights the need for more services to make the drivers’ experience more advantageous and beneficial, Thomson said.
In the final concurrent session on large fleet electrification, Danita Park from NRG stressed that fleets need to do more than set a goal; they must define the roadmap for how they will reach a goal. Chris George, EVolve Houston, urged fleets to invite utilities to the table in these discussions.
We're talking about the chicken and egg scenario in the #fleetforwardcon "Large Fleet Electrification" panel on planning for EVs and the needed infrastructure. Yann Kulp, @eiqmobility says it's an iterative process. Chris George @EVolveHoustonTX says have utilities at the table. pic.twitter.com/u7J7qs5W3a— Fleet Forward (@fleet_forward) November 12, 2021
Michael Ambrose, East Bay Municipal Utility District, took some pressure off attendees by recommending a start with pilots rather than going all in. This encourages some small wins to begin measuring progress, building accountability, and learning valuable lessons along the way.
Park also cautioned against using the same criteria for an ICE vehicle and applying it to an EV. “If you don’t have the right mindset and think of fossil fuel problems, you need to find out where your assumptions are wrong early in order to build a new system around EV functions,” she said.
NRG data shows that around 86% of fleets are considering electrification, but only 12% have already taken steps to move the ball forward, Park says. “There’s a lot of interest, but not a lot of action.” Yet.
Keyless vehicle access via phones is here today. The future promises integrated keyless access that agnostic to vehicle make and mobile device yet secure. One standard for all phones and cars. #fleetforwardcon pic.twitter.com/5QbWO3sIQQ— Peter Nogalo (@PNogalo) November 12, 2021
The final day opened with a presentation on the autonomous freight market, with a look at the current partnership from Waymo Via and JB Hunt J.B. Hunt Transport Services. John Verdon, trucking lead for business dvelopment & partnerships for Waymo Via, provided an overview of the pilot that has now completed thousands of autonomus rides in Arizona. Speaking to the need for more human drivers by 2035, he also touched on the importance of recruiting and retaining, because though the future will look different, there will be a need for both types of drives. Verdon said that autonomous rides can also help alleviate the driver shortage we're experiencing and provide more flexibility for the human drivers, who may not be needed as extensively for long-haul routes.
In the "Depot, Home or Public: Defining Your Charging Strategy" session, attendees gleaned advice on assessing their needs, setting a strategy, working with utilities, taking advtange of incentives, and sourcing vehicle data. The panelists referenced that about 85% of vehicle charging happens at home, which brings unique infrastructure considerations, although it also comes with much access. "If you make it easy, if you make it simple, they will do it," Aleece Beaulieu, Genentech, said.
Driver equity and housing type is one potential barrier to widespread EV adoption for fleets. How to charge up in MDUs or apartments? There are work-arounds but also work to do. #fleetforwardcon pic.twitter.com/0vglVgiaim— Peter Nogalo (@PNogalo) November 12, 2021
Other sessions touched on keyless technologies, fueling needs, the role of autonomous last-mile deliveries, deep dives on data, and planning for medium-duty EV deployments.